Sunday, January 29, 2012

Junk Food in Schools Doesn't Affect Childhood Obesity--Despite New School Meals Regulations

Just catching up on the newspaper and came across two items that show that all the tax dollars and excitement funnelled into curbing childhood obesity goes largely to waste. Both appeared in the New York Times--one reports on a study that compares students in schools that sell junk snacks with kids whose schools didn't, and it followed the ones who moved from one type of school to the other.

The second item was a front-page story discussing the merits of bariatric surgery--stomach stapling or banding to reduce the amount that can be consumed--for obese teenagers. It followed 17-year-old New Yorker Shani Gofman through the process until she was 20, and along the way weighs the pros and cons of this type of obesity treatment.

Both suggest the same conclusion: Childhood obesity rates won't respond to conventional, ie current (expensive, extensive) efforts to to lower them.

Results of research at Pennsylvania State University about the effects of junk food in schools are especially pertinent this week as the White House, in concert with the USDA, announced its new regulations for the food content of school breakfast and lunch programs. The rationale for this aspect of Michelle Obama's $4.5-billion, 10-year Healthy, Hunger-Free Kids Act is that tweaking the formulation of foods required for school meals will make kids thinner and therefore healthier, as well as model menus they'll emulate later.
What Michelle Obama ate at Parklawn Elementary when announcing the new school lunch requirements Jan. 25, 2012

That's kind of the idea behind replacing sugary, salty snacks sold in school vending machines with healthy alternatives. To see if this made any difference in middle and high-schoolers' girth, sociologists looked at students' longitudinal profiles, following them in and out of "competitive food environments" (ie schools with vending machines selling junk food). They also investigated whether gender, socio-economic status and race/ethnicity played into the vending machine-obesity issue.

Answer: No. Children's BMIs had no relationship to any of those factors. The study's lead researcher, Jennifer Van Hook, said, "Food preferences are established early in life. This problem of childhood obesity cannot be placed solely in the hands of schools."

Ahh, but those are the only hands the Feds can control.  So they've now constrained local schools' freedom to decide what's good and feasible for their populations.  And what are these enlightened changes?  Not much, except now lunches will have more.  More fruits and veggies specifically, moving from a half-cup to a cup of veggies per meal, for example, (with types of veggies now specified) and adding to that same tray a half-cup of fruit.  Starting this year, half of bread stuffs will be whole-grains, moving to all whole-grain by July 1, 2014. And no more whole milk allowed; low fat only.

The feds know adding all these extra requirements is expensive, so they've agreed to spend six cents per meal of your tax dollars to subsidize the changes.  If you look at the USDA's comparison of what those menus look like compared to the old ones, you'll see--there's basically just a lot more food.

Take any menu they offer as an example--say, Tuesday. The old, supposedly obesity-producing lunch offered: Hot Dog on a Bun with ketchup, 1/4 cup canned pears, raw celery and carrots (1/8 cup each), 1.75 tablespoon ranch dressing, and 1% chocolate-flavored milk.

Now look at its superior replacement:  Whole wheat spaghetti with 1/2 cup meat sauce, a whole wheat roll, a half-cup of cooked green beans, a half cup raw broccoli, a half-cup raw cauliflower, a half-cup kiwi halves, 1% milk, an ounce of low-fat ranch dressing, and 5 grams of soft margarine.

Think of how eagerly those elementary school kids will be gobbling up all those cooked green beans, and that raw broccoli, cauliflower and those coveted kiwi halves! The children's delight in two cups of greens, perfectly complimenting their (whole wheat) spaghetti, will surely create little fiber-philes who will happily eschew (and not chew) the candy and baked goods youthful generations before them have craved.

I am impressed that federal nutritionists think schools can deliver kiwi halves, not to mention cauliflower, for a mere 6 cents extra per plate.  Peeling the fuzz off kiwis is going to add substantially to preparation costs.

Michelle Obama eats at Parklawn Elementary, Alexandria, VA
The second news story that convinces me that well-meaning efforts to curb childhood obesity are doomed describes Shani Gofman's experience with "laparoscopic adjustable gastric banding," a surgery that limited the size of her stomach.  She weighed in on the day of her operation at 271 pounds, a BMI of 51.  Two weeks later, she was down 20 lbs, and after six months reached 237 lbs.

Then she graduated high school and took a summer Israel tour with a group of her peers.  She "would wolf down her food and then she would run to the bathroom to vomit or sit in pain waiting for it to make its way through the band." About nine months after surgery, she'd gained back half of what she'd lost.  Even enduring the pain and discomfort of surgery does not guarantee that a motivated teen can conquer obesity.

"Most of us have witnessed the medical establishment provide the same advice over and over again to kids who are overweight--they just need to diet and play more outside," said University of Cincinnati pediatrician Thomas Inge. "I wish it were that simple."

And that's the point. It's not as simple as whole grain rolls or even cutting into a young woman's abdomen to shrink her stomach.  The wrongly-named "obesity epidemic," a phenomenon that began in 1980 and peaked in 2000, is complex.  There's precious little concrete data to explain it, and every effort to turn it around has failed. Why, for example, have obesity rates remained at the same (high) levels for the past ten years? Perhaps instead of throwing more money and regulations at this broadening target, it would be prudent to pull back and see exactly what's going on.  Better to deal with the difficulties of obesity--health, emotional, financial, inter-personal--on an individual basis, where compassion and tailored solutions have at least some chance of bringing improvement, if not cure.

1 comment:

  1. Kiwi halves are where you cut a kiwi in half and eat the insides with a spoon it's actually one of my eight year olds favorite snacks. Why are you so anti healthy eating? What is wrong about treating your body with respect by putting the best quality foods into it? Would you be ok with letting kids drink and use drugs if it made them feel good, as you seem to be about candy? The Shani girl seems to be displaying addictive behavior similar to those with chemical dependency issues, that sure is odd.